It is “probably suicide” in Northern Ireland too

In the matter of Steponaviciene’s Application [2018] NIQB, 16.11.18

As coroners, lawyers and the bereaved wait to find out how the Court of Appeal will decide the Maughan case this coming April[1], a decision from across the Irish Sea has looked in detail at the English and Welsh Divisional Court’s decision in Maughan and found no flaws in its “careful and persuasive” reasoning. For the time being at least, the issue of whether the deceased died from suicide should be decided on the balance of probablities in Northern Ireland just as in the English and Welsh Coroners’ courts.

In a detailed judgment McCloskey J has also laid some of the groundwork for anyone resisting the English appeal[2]. In considering the arguments in Steponaviciene’s Application the judge reviewed nine cases put before him that the court had not been referred to in Maughan at first instance. Roundly dismissing the suggestion that any of these cases rendered the Maughan decision per incuriam, the judge lamented that one of the “unfortunate repercussions of the internet explosion was the routine inundation of electronically available judicial decisions belonging to multiple levels in the hierarchy of the legal system without proper regard to the doctrine of precedent.

A lesson on the doctrine of precedent in the internet age

This judgment is well worth a read for its neat lesson on the doctrines of stare decisis and precedent[3]. McCloskey J was clearly not impressed at being asked to consider almost any coronial case that had tangentially touched on the issue of suicide. He puts out a clear warning to advocates not to overburden courts with authorities of no precedential value, noting that courts have on occasions reflected their disapproval of this practice in the formulation of cost orders, their prioritisation of listings and by setting time limits on oral hearings.

Flooding courts with authorities that have no precedential value is as, the judge put it, “manifestly antithetical to the overriding objective.

The judge found that there was no binding authority within the large collection of cases put before him which the Court in Maughan would have been obliged to follow.

“The Court would have learnt little or nothing of substance by being alerted to a cluster of first instance decisions containing cursory and undeveloped references to the standard of proof” in inquests verdicts of death by suicide.

The ultimate conclusion of the Judge was that he was “unable to diagnose any flaw in the reasoning or conclusion of the Divisional Court in the Maughan case”. Though not binding on the Northern Irish court, he considered the decision to be “so carefully and persuasively reasoned” that it should be followed[4].

No more “committing” suicide please

Another point worthy of note in this judgment is that a no stage does the judge himself use the phrase “committed suicide”.

Whatever view the Court of Appeal takes in April of the legal standard of proof, it is a personal bugbear of this author that the phrase “committed suicide” continues to be used by coroners and judges over 50 years after suicide was no longer deemed a crime.

Yes I know it is merely semantics – but very often the words we use are extremely important to the bereaved. Saying “died as a result of suicide” or “intentionally took his own life” can express the same factual and legal scenario without any suggestion that the deceased has somehow committed some wrongdoing.

Regardless of Maughan, surely the time has already come (and indeed passed) for the statement that someone has “committed suicide” to be removed from the coronial and judicial lexicon.



[1] See our earlier blog piece here on the seismic decision in R (Maughan) v HM Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire [2018] EWHC 1955 (Admin) which determined that the standard of proof in coronial proceedings for whether a person died from suicide was the civil standard of proof i.e. on the balance of probabilities.The Court of Appeal hearing in Maughan has been listed for 9 April 2019

[2] The Chief Coroner has intervened in the appeal: whether he will fulfill an amicus role or adopt a position is not yet known.

[3] See §22-25

[4] §67